Love and Charisma in the Tristan et Iseut of Beroul

Article excerpt

The prevarications invented by Beroul's Tristan and Iseut to disguise their love affair have elicited much critical attention over the years. However, one significant aspect of the lovers' lies bears further examination: that they are, in fact, true. While the lovers wilfully mislead their listeners, their "lies" can reasonably be understood to describe their situation accurately if they are submitted to a "legalistic interpretation of the form of the words," as Brian Blakeley has written. (1) Still, no one has adequately explained why the lovers insist upon telling technically true lies. At times, the reasons for their ambiguous discourse are straightforward. For instance, in the "equivocal oath" scene, Iseut has two contradictory imperatives to fulfill. She must speak the truth in order to satisfy the requirements of the ordeal and simultaneously conceal the reality of her actions from the crowd in order to save her own life. But why under other circumstances do the lovers consistently tell the truth when they lie? In other words, why do they not simply save their honor "par bel mentir" as the Hermit Ogrin suggests? (2)

Part of the answer may be that sharing a joke with the audience by telling a lie that they all know to be true is a good story-telling device. But beyond this, I will argue that in structuring love as a secret, that is, as a type of knowledge to be diffused among a group of elite listeners, Beroul is working consciously to reshape conceptions of love and marriage in twelfth-century Christian feudal society. The lovers' "truthful" lies interact dialectically with authorized conceptions of marriage to suggest that this fundamental social institution can and should be structured differently. Beroul, like his contemporaries, perceives love as an ambivalent and potentially harmful compulsion. Still, he maintains that properly harnessed and distributed through marriage, it could be a powerful force for the good. Furthermore, Beroul explores the links between the ability to inspire passion on a personal level to a corresponding ability to arouse love in followers, suggesting that this force, too, should be cultivated and pressed into service for society. His story, then, can be read as a plea for recognizing the potential usefulness of passionate love along with what I will argue to be the emotion's more public manifestation, a quality we might call "charisma," in the feudal world. Brian Stock has described early medieval society as possessing on the one hand "an immense range of relatively uncharted events, sensations, and emotions, and on the other, a limited number of inherited models of interpreting them." (3) Beroul's story, like other late twelfth-century works of fiction, represents a growing awareness of his age's need for more varied and nuanced paradigms of emotion.


Neither theologians nor feudal lords would have recognized Tristan and Iseut's passionate love as a legitimate basis for marriage. True, the late twelfth-century Church might have acknowledged that the lovers' consummation of their relationship and their obvious desire to live together invalidated the marriage between Marc and Iseut. (4) Jean Subrenat has observed, "Ainsi il faut bien considerer l'union de Marc et Yseut comme nulle sous plus d'un rapport: consentement vicie de la reine, peut-etre mariage prealable de Tristan et Yseut (ce qui suffirait)." (5) However, the Church would have condemned the lovers' intense passion for one another, even had it acknowledged the right of the two to marry. Love or amor, as it is called in Old French and Latin, did not form the proper basis of a marriage in the eyes of the Church. Amor was a large concept, yoking together two impulses modern readers tend to imagine as distinct: disinterested, spiritual love, and intense--even violent--sexual desire. (6) In the Liber de Speculo Caritatis, the Cistercian theorist on love Aelred of Rievaulx (1109-1166) describes these two impulses as caritas, a force that elevates the soul towards God, and cupiditas, which includes sexual desire, an unruly disposition that drags the soul back down to earth. …


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